A nation in distress: Further attacks on the First Amendment

american-flag_half-mastSince 2013 there have been things occurring in our nation that have me extremely concerned. For those that know me or follow me on Facebook, you have seen the news articles I have highlighted over the past year and each of them relates to one another: the unmistakable call to silence all opposition to the progressive movement. There have been a few times in our nation’s history when one group sought to silence its opposition and with each attempt, spanning the administrations of Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Wilson, F. D. Roosevelt, Johnson, and Nixon, there has always been an electoral pushback by the American voter. Now, in 2014, there appears to be no interest in an electoral pushback; strangely, we are seeing increasing calls from members and supporters of the current administration demanding reigning in conservative talk radio, jailing and convicting those who deny climate change, oppressing those through IRS investigations that either politically oppose the administration or do not agree with the progressive agenda.

Since last week, I have been following the unfolding story of the Houston mayor, Ms. Annise Parker and her demands to silence opposition to her GLBTQ agenda currently being forced on the residents of the city. According to several news reports, she and the city council implemented a new city ordinance that allows the use of any public restroom by anyone, regardless of their biological sexual identity. Immediately, there was a public backlash and five pastors and others began a petition drive to force the issue to the ballot to be decided by the voting public of Houston. With nearly 50,000 signatures on the petition it surpassed the city’s requirement of only 18,000 needed to force a public vote on the issue. The city “found” justification to eliminate a number of the signatures  on the petition and declared the entire petition as invalid. But the resistance from the Houston mayor’s office did not end there.

In an answer to a lawsuit filed by several Christians objecting to the new ordinance, the city subpoenaed the sermons of five local pastors, claiming that their sermons would prove the city’s point that the churches were actively influencing politics instead of speaking out about religious or moral issues. Since then, the city has changed its demands and now claims that they are seeking communications, including emails and phone records, etc. of these pastors where they have been active in pushing the petition drive and how much time had been used by these pastors during their sermon to educate their congregations on the proper submission of petitions. Those who defend Mayor Parker claim that these churches were voiding their First Amendment protections by engaging in social and political issues. This argument is not only disingenuous, but sets a dangerous precedent.

There is a reason why the First Amendment is broad in the rights it protects. It states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

At the time it was written, the founding fathers had endured a war to separate the British American colonies from the tyranny that had developed in Great Britain. Parliament and the King, by his decrees, had restricted the Colonial American press, had restricted religious toleration of all but the Catholic and Anglican faiths, and had begun to view any assembly or public meeting of Colonials as suspect. These natural rights, as viewed by the men that wrote the Bill of Rights, were interrelated. One could not have freedom of worship without freedom of speech or the freedom to peaceably assemble. They also counted on the citizen being guided by a morality founded in their individual faith that would allow them to peaceably assemble, to petition in good faith the government, and to conduct their speech in a manner reflective of their moral foundation. One could suggest that the U.S. Constitution actually facilitates honest debate and encourages the discussion of differences among its citizenry as a means to come to a consensus on a variety of issues.

At times, there have been gross attempts to restrict the rights of those critical of the policies and politicians in power. There have been attempts to charge Americans with sedition, deny them the use of the United States Postal Service, hold them without formal charges, illegal searches and seizures of personal property, and costly investigations for “tax fraud,” all designed to silence vocal and public opposition. Regardless of the party in power, it is important that all Americans oppose the attempts of those in power to restrict the exercise of the First Amendment. Political correctness must be seen for the evil that it is. Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment minds that influenced the founding fathers, once quipped “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Although we may find the speech of someone hateful or distasteful, we must never infringe on their right, their entitlement, to speak their mind.

Going back to the original issue, the subpoenas of the pastors’ communications, sermons, and other demands on the basis that they were somehow crossing into the political arena is a false argument as well. No one bats an eye when Democrats openly campaign in black churches, or when ACORN held voter registration and education clinics in urban churches. No one dared to complain of violations of separation of church and state while pastors of black churches publicly announced their support for then-candidate and Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 election cycle. In reality, to expect churches, which have always been regarded as providing moral guidance to its congregants, to remain silent in the nation’s elections, is simply unreasonable. This view is inconsistent with the vision of our founding fathers who felt that one’s religion was supposed to be influential in their public lives and in the exercises of their civic duties, including jury duty and within the election process.

Liberal special interest groups (Liberal/Progressive Democrats and Republicans) have traditionally opposed church involvement in politics since the 1950s for one simple reason – during the 1950s and 1960s the vast majority of Americans were still reasonably active within their local congregations. The power of the church cannot and should not be underestimated; consider the number of black and white churches that were in full support of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was their efforts, through the support and endorsement from the pulpits in America, that caused massive social change that ended segregation and allowed blacks to begin to enjoy the civil rights they are entitled to by virtue of their status of being an American citizen.

If this Houston mayor is allowed to threaten, through subpoena, her political opponents, then there is no restraint for any politician who seeks to silence their opposition. She will have succeeded where Wilson and FDR failed.

Alan Simmons

Alan Simmons is an adjunct instructor of history at Henderson Community College. He has been teaching at the college/university level since 2004. Within the scope of his degrees, his areas of emphasis are U.S. foreign policy, public policy history, political history, and U.S. history.

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